The Swedish Art of Ageing Well by Margareta Magnusson

It’s a real achievement to become a best-selling author in your late eighties, as Magnusson did with her 2020 book Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which is all about doing a gentler version of Marie Kondo in preparation for your own death, so as not to leave it all to your loved ones. I can understand this, but also, clearing my late mum’s house was a voyage of discovery which I wouldn’t have missed for the world – had she got rid of all the myriad clippings, gadgets, sewing kit, photos, diaries, programmes and magazines etc. my life would be much the poorer. I should add that I haven’t read that book, so don’t know how she deals with disposing of things, whether they are passed on or not for instance. I, of course, being my mother’s daughter, also have way too much stuff, if fewer gadgets, and as downsizing for retirement beckons in several years time, this is something I will need to consider.

Her follow-up book, (entitled “The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly” in the USA, as opposed to our UK version which is very British!) is a gentle read, essays full of wisdom learned from a busy life. An artist, who has been exhibited widely, Magnusson also had five children and moved around the world with her husband’s job. Now living in Stockholm, her friends are scattered around the world, but she begins her book with sharing a G&T over zoom with a childhood friend, Lola, who lives in Nice, they do this weekly, having a lovely time gossiping and reminiscing. Although Magnusson wistfully ends the piece: “Sometimes I wonder which one of us will be the first to not answer.”

The chapter that resonated with me most was the third, entitled ‘Don’t Leave Empty-Handed’. In it she introduces us to Birgitta, a gallery owner in Gothenburg who gave her her first exhibition in the late 1970s. Birgitta ‘had a natural tidiness about her‘, and Magnusson recounts how all the city’s ‘cultural celebrities’ would gather around a big table at Birgittas to eat, drink, talk art, argue politics and put the world to rights, and whenever someone got up to go to the kitchen she’d say,”Don’t leave empty-handed.” And thus tidiness was the order of the day.

What a revelation! Since reading this, I’ve been saying to myself, ‘don’t go empty-handed’ (in a silly little voice – where that came from, I don’t know!) at every opportunity moving between areas at home. I’m putting the herb jars back in the rack in the larder, taking stuff to the bin if I’m passing. Importantly, I’m taking the piles of books on the halfway house of the stairs, up to my bookcases – previously, they could have stayed there for weeks. Reader, it works! Already my kitchen, utility and hall ways are tidier; it hasn’t helped the piles of books waiting for their space in the bookcases though! I’m trying hard to make it a new habit. In keeping with the times, she expands this to a wider environment, “…also, while you are still on earth, make sure the planet itself has been a little bit picked up after before you go.” She goes on to cite some inspirational stories of people who are doing more than their bit in this field.

Some of the topics she covers are whimsical, like wearing stripes and eating chocolate. Others are more overtly self-help oriented, like volunteering once retired and surrounding yourself with younger people. Then there are practicalities like how not to fall over and injure yourself as you age and philosophical questions like embracing change and not following the negativity of doomsayers. All these are told with stories of friends and family, some poignant like remembering her late husband Lars, but also many moments of self-deprecation as she chuckles at the things she herself has said and done sometimes. The little book finishes with a look back to Döstädning – death cleaning with some tips on getting started.

The book has no translator listed, so I’m assuming she wrote it in English (or translated herself), which given her world travels and sojourns in the USA would seem perfectly apt. Readable in topic by topic chunks if you like, this is an undemanding yet heart-warming guide and pick-me-up nudging us gently towards ageing well – even exuberantly!

See what Rebecca thought, when she reviewed it last year here.

Source: Review copy – Thank you! Canongate hardback, 2023, 160 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

8 thoughts on “The Swedish Art of Ageing Well by Margareta Magnusson

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    Thanks for the link! I enjoyed this and preferred it to Döstädning. Unfortunately, that book does recommend just getting rid of things, with no eye to the environmental impact. Guides like that are always too unsentimental to me. There are so many objects that have such emotional weight they can’t easily be jettisoned.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Although I’m a decade and more off Magnusson’s current age of (I see after a quick google) ninety, it’s a bit worrying that I can see myself tentatively picking up this book, especially after we’ve started the process of setting up a Lasting Power of Attorney. 😕 Bugger…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Apparently, she suggests that people start death cleaning gradually after 65. (So I have a couple of years to go!). The main problem is that these kind of books are never written by bibliomanes.

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